Monday, June 27, 2011

Flow States

we are not in Turkey

A couple of posts ago I was talking about Turkish a little bit, which reminded me of an exhilarating conversation I had a long time ago. That's right, exhilarating.

I had just arrived way jet-lagged at İstanbul Atatürk Havalimanı (the airport), to begin a two-week tour of Turkey. I picked up my bags, and headed to Customs. After a few minutes of standing in the Customs line, it quit moving: some kind of kerfuffle at the front. Raised voices. Then a uniformed customs officer walked down the stalled line, repeating something in Turkish I didn't understand, although I knew it was not yes, no, thank you, good morning, or I want two beers please. Then he went back to the front. The line still didn't budge, and the voices at the front got louder. Then a civilian student-age Turk came down the line asking in English, "you speak Italian, you speak Italian, you speak Italian." I said yes, I spoke Italian, but not in a few years. He asked me to come to the front of the line anyway.

An unhappy Italian was at the counter with his big suitcase open; frowning Turks were investigating the contents. The case was foam-lined with recesses for all kinds of odd-looking metal-rubber-plastic-electrical objects. All harmless one supposes, but the customs men couldn't tell.  So the English-speaking Turk and I were going to manage a bucket-brigade conversation between the Italian and the Customs officers. I explained to the Italian what we were going to do, and then the four of us proceeded to translate from Turkish to English to Italian and back again:

Customs wants to know what these things are.

They're industrial parts, I'm a salesman. I have appointments in Istanbul.

They have to verify the parts are not dangerous.

Fine. They are not dangerous. That is not a problem for me.

Customs says they must have someone else decide the parts are not dangerous.

Yes, I will wait here.

The man who decides is not here now. They say you have to leave the bag and return tomorrow....go to the airport customs office tomorrow; don't return here. Are you good with this?

I can't do anything but as they say. I will return tomorrow, but I need a receipt. 

They will give you a receipt now. They also want a business card.

OK. (produces one)

That's all, they are content for now. (smiles all around)

OK, Thank you.

Thank you; I like to have the occasion to speak Italian.

This conversation didn't take long, and there was no time to review verb conjugations or vocabulary. It was like accidentally falling into water and immediately starting to swim. But because there was no warning there was no time for anxiety or fear, or even thinking in the normal way. Just a suspended-animation sense of joy and getting it done. The languages ran together as a continuity, rather than as separate things. A weird language high. Forget the jet-lag, I was fired-up! I realized later that for those few minutes I had been in a flow-state.

(Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.)

Back in the 70s I read an interview of Mario Andretti in one of my father's Road & Tracks. In the interview, Andretti said he drove the fastest in a flow-state. Being an unfamiliar term back then, he explained it in the same way as the above Wiki definition. Sounded like fun. I never expected to enjoy one at the airport in Turkey.

See that picture at the top? It's not Turkey! Yes, it's Russia. No, it's not Moscow and the church isn't St. Basil's. It's St. Petersburg, and the church is the Храм Спаса на Крови/ Khram Spasa na Krovi/ Temple (of) Savior on Blood. We'd say church for temple. This photo was taken a couple of minutes before I experienced a second and most recent language flow-state. After the shot, my family wandered individually back to the tour-bus (My Wife the Travel Agent and Art History Prof put together a small-group custom 2-day tour with a minibus and guide). Halfway back, my wife comes over, says can you help this German couple, I don't think they speak English or Russian. Umm...OK! (I really like German. By the way, my experience is that once you learn a second language enough to use it at all, learning more of them is pretty easy. It's the first second language that's the hurdle. Languages are not the big deal people think they are.)

Hello, I speak some German.

Yes! We are looking for Nevsky Prospekt. (St. Petersburg's main street)

I think that Nevsky Prospekt is straight up that way, but I am not sure. I can ask our tour-leader. Let us go to the tour bus.

(We do; only the driver is in the bus)

Mr. Driver, these German people want to know: Nevsky Prospekt this way? (Russians don't say "is" if it's obvious)

No. Go 4 blocks and turn left.

The driver says go straight 4 streets then turn left.

All good; is it far to walk?

Mr. Driver, Nevsky Prospekt not many meters, maybe 10 minutes to walk?

Yes, 10 minutes.


You're welcome.

The walk is only 10 minutes or so.

Thank you!

Thank you too, I like to have an occasion to speak German.



And once again I came down from that high, and was charged-up for the rest of the day. I doubt I could have translated straight from German to Russian and back if I had planned to do it. My self-awareness would have processed the conversation through English each time, each way; slowing things down.

So: two flow states, both involving a loss of self-awareness and increased ability. Seems like something that'd work well spiritually. I imagine saints must experience such flow-states; I'm not there yet.